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Chapter XXVI. The Courtship of Bob Wallace.

LITTLE ALICE had been ailing for the past few days, and her illness caused a terrible shade of anxiety to rest over the frequenters of the hotel, with whom she was a general favourite.

When the doctor declared it to be a case of typhoid fever, twenty strong men volunteered to nurse their infantine favourite back to health.

Her mother, however grateful for the proffered services of these honest boys, with whom time meant literally gold, declined their offers and determined to do the best she could herself.

Rosa wanted the child to be sent over to the hospital, but this suggestion the mother would not listen to; where she was, her daughter would have to be tolerated also, therefore if Mrs. Chester was frightened about the infection, she was willing to leave.

Typhoid is a common complaint about the goldfields, as it has been in Sydney of late years; most of the residents had either passed through it, or lived in its proximity, so that they had come to regard it as incidental to the climate, like the mosquitoes and the flies. The fact therefore of a patient being in the hotel made no falling away in the custom, no man believing nor caring about infection. They were sorry for the sake of Sarah,

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as well as for the youngster, and drank their liquor in a more subdued manner. “Mexican Joe” told newcomers gently about the inevitable funeral that followed the pulling out of his “shooter.” Sailor Bill nursed his chin with his ringed hand, and looked moodily into his glass, and the rest of the worthies tried to give as little trouble as possible, yet they stuck to the bar and verandah with heroic fidelity, and drank as deeply if more silently than before.

Bob Wallace, however, bustled in on the fourth night of the trouble, and seeing that Sarah was looking pale and jaded, he told her that he had a fortnight of idleness on his hands before going farther West, and as he had nursed his mates without catching it, he reckoned himself fever-proof, therefore, whether she liked his services or not, he was going to look after little Alice.

Wallace was a favourite with Sarah, for although fond of yarning and chaffing, he was one of the most respectful of the visitors, treating her with a great deal more reverence than he did her coquettish mistress. Indeed, the boys had come to regard it as a settled thing that this lucky mine-owner was paying serious attentions to the handsome barmaid, and intended to become a stepfather if he could.

Sarah tried to resist his determination, but was too fagged to hold out long; therefore, that night he took her place at the bedside of the little sufferer, while she got the sleep she so much required.

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He was a good nurse, and as he had watched the different phases of this disease before, he knew exactly what to do, which Sarah quickly saw. A woman might have been more correct under the circumstances, for, as the hotel was crowded with sleepers, Sarah was forced to take her rest in the same apartment as the patient and this volunteer help, but the few women who were at Kalgourlie had their own sick to look after, while it would have been the last place to expect to see Rosa. Besides, cosmopolitans who have travelled over the world of waters in ships, and lived in canvas houses where only Hessian partitions separate them from their neighbours, do not think so much about the conventionalities in such trivial matters as do dwellers within brick-built walls.

Bob Wallace had watched Sarah quietly, but with great interest, since her arrival in Kalgourlie, and felt that he could easily make a big sacrifice to intérest her equally in him. Men had spoken freely enough with and about Rosa Chester, but the circumspect conduct of the barmaid had been the subject of only respectful admiration. He was a plain fellow, was Bob, but he had the desire and ambition of his sex, to marry a woman whom he could trust. Sarah to all appearances seemed to have this quality, as well as the pleasing charms which attract a man. That she was a woman of the world, with experience, was an additional attraction in the estimation of the miner.

He had many opportunities after that first night, while both child and mother slept so close to him,

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of thinking the matter out; and long before little Alice was declared out of danger, he made up his mind to try his luck as soon as possible, and offer his hand and fortune to the first woman who had taught him to believe in her sex.

“There's grit in that girl,” he said to himself, “and, by George, there are few that can hold the candle to her for looks.”

It is a dangerous thing for a man to be much with a woman, even if they only meet during the day, whether she is ugly or handsome; but to be as they were then placed, in a sick room, the chances pointed strongly towards matrimony, if both parties were heart-whole and free before, or misery to the one who was inclined that way if the other was not.

Now whether Sarah was satisfied with her first experiment, for some women are constituted that way, or that her heart was buried with her dead husband, or that she was too much used to men, Bob could not determine. She was kind to him, and had grown wondrous free in this close intimacy—too free, by a long way, for his newly-awakened sentiments to glean much encouragement from, for it was the unconscious freedom of a sister towards a brother, united with the grateful tenderness of a doting mother towards the man who has aided her to push back the grim tyrant, Death. The kind of tenderness and freedom which a woman will display towards a self-sacrificing and devoted physician. He knew that she trusted him utterly after the first night. That first night she had been

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restless and watchful, only dropping asleep from sheer fatigue by fits and starts, and waking up often. He had felt angry at this suspicion, yet owned it was only natural on her part.

Since then, however, she had given him her confidence, and lay down on the couch calmly to take her needed repose. She came to him with a loose dressing-gown on, as she left her day costume in her mistress's room. There he had her before him through the night as she reclined on that couch only a few yards distant. Her heavy black tresses, loose and falling to her knees in rippling waves when she stood beside him bending over her child, lying like a dark cloud in all directions when she slept.

He heard her low, regular breathing, for she was a quiet sleeper. He saw her red lips part sometimes in a smile, and her white teeth gleam between, as she tossed round towards him in that unconscious abandon, then the longing came upon him almost beyond his strength to resist, to take the kiss that those red lips seemed to ask.

Then, filled with shame and fear of himself, love made him do what he had not done since he was a boy at his mother's knee, kneel down by the side of the child, and, taking her hot, thin hand in his, say his prayers with a passion and earnestness that so few threw into the words:

“Keep us from temptation and deliver us from evil.”

The child did him good at such moments of agony. Half conscious as she was and listless with

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the awful prostration of typhoid, the wan little fingers pressed his, and sometimes the other hand was passed gently down his face. The evil fled at the touch of those fevered fingers, and manhood poured into his heart and made love revive.

Oh, yes. He loved her now as a man loves once in his life, if no more. It may be that this kind of love comes more than once to a man, yet it is doubtful, for the woman who is loved in this way seldom appreciates it, and men get to learn the standard that women are content with.

He went in and out during the day, but none of the boys chaffed him about his vigils, for they had an instinct that it was likely to be a serious business, and they all liked Sarah too well to make a joke of such a subject. They enquired after Alice gravely and wished him success with their eyes, but they would have smashed the eyes of any bungler who dared to make a joke of that sick nursing yet. When the time came for Bob to announce his engagement, then he would run “amuck,” meantime they were not the kind to frost a young bud before it was far enough grown to stand the blast. These diggers are wonderfully intuitive, if they are at times rough and inclined to burn effigies when they cannot get at their enemies with their boots. Champagne and whisky are not like absinthe in their effects. They don't blunt the sensibilities.

Rosa also could afford to let Sarah have this man, who abhorred Sydneyites so heartily. He wasn't a favourite of hers, that is, he had never shown any desire for her society, and she had

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plenty to pick and choose from, without him; therefore she could afford to be generous.

She had read the account of the discovery in Sydney, and as her husband had never written, she guessed that he had shown the white feather and absconded. She had been interviewed also by the police, and told them she knew nothing about the business. If Chester knew anything they had better find him, as she would like to know where he was, and so matters stood at present. Meanwhile she was enjoying herself and making money, therefore her mind was easy.

“If I don't hear from Arthur very soon, I'll apply for another divorce, and get spliced again,” she said to herself complacently, as she dressed herself to go for a moonlight drive into the desert with the Hon. Billy.

Sarah Hall was very, very grateful to her friend, Bob Wallace. He was a good-looking and an honourable, as well as a wealthy, man, and she wasn't indifferent to that last fact either.

She was woman enough to see that she could do with him as she liked. Alice was fond of him, as she had good cause to be, for without his help and experience she would have lost her treasure. If she married him, herself and her daughter would be placed beyond the buffets of fortune for life. That was an inducement to tempt any fond mother. Did she like him well enough to accept these blessings with him tacked on to them? Yes. Leaving one man out of the question, whom she had lost for ever, Bob Wallace was more, in her estimation, than any

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other man in the world. She felt, if she took him, her fate ought to be happier than that of most women who marry, for he had proved himself to be a good and a true man. Alice would never want.

If he had not nursed her child and told her so much of his past, if he had asked her over the bar before she knew him so well, she might have said “Yes,” but now——

With a shuddering moan she thrust the temptation from her. He was too good a fellow to curse. She had only respect and gratitude to give—not love, which makes a woman reasonless and remorseless.

Alice was up and about again, so Bob's occupation was gone as a sick nurse.

One afternoon he came with a buggy to give her a drive, and as the hour was a slack one she got leave and went with him, knowing what that drive meant.

They drove into the sandy waste and there under the twilight sky, Bob asked her the momentous question, flinging a bit of eloquence into it and introducing Alice as an inducement for her to say Yes, and become a life partner in his profitable speculations. She felt that he was in deadly earnest, and they were familiar almost as man and wife already.

“See here, Bob,” she said after a pause, and an intense look at him out of her dark eyes. “You have told me all your past life, and it's been an honest one, but you know nothing about mine.”

“I don't want to hear about your past so long as

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you are at liberty to marry me and care for me enough to do so.”

“Ah, I am a free woman as far as that goes, Bob,” she replied, bitterly. “And I like you well enough.”

“That's enough. Then we will reckon it as settled.

“Not yet, my friend. Give me a night or two to think of it. I'll marry no man unless he knows all about me first, and I cannot tell you that story to-day. To-morrow, perhaps, I'll tell you it, and if you are willing then to have me, I'll be your wife.”

“My darling!”

He put his arms round her waist and kissed her, while she didn't resist the embrace. Then they silently returned to the hotel.

That night, as Sarah was waiting at the bar and Wallace was sitting on the verandah with his friends, two visitors came, the captain and Barney.

After securing their beds and ordering their supper, they went into the bar for a drink. Sarah started as she saw Barney, but at a sign from him she became calm as before. In a few minutes she managed to get him where they could talk without being observed, then she said:

“Do you know anything about Jack?”

“Yes,” replied Barney; “he is with me, a hundred miles from here, and doing well.”

“Thank God. See, Barney, what do you think of that?”

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She pointed to Alice, who was sitting in a pillowed chair at the farther end of the bar.

“Yours?” he asked laconically.

“Yes—and Jack's. Tell him when you see him that he has got a piccaninny waiting for him at Kalgourlie.”

Alas! for the hopes of Bob Wallace. He sits happily shouting champagne for all and sundry, while Sarah flits about the bar with a bright glitter in her eyes—but not for him.